Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Guest Post: Slithering Horror, Ten Foot Poles, and a Dog Named Honey Boo-Boo

The next session saw two new players. These were old friends who had introduced me to the other three, and had created characters weeks before. These two were also entirely new to RPGs, though they’d heard me talk about them for a couple years.

  • Igollad, lawful Cleric, AC2, HP16 (lvl 3); Str14, Int5, Wis11, Dex11, Con13, Cha7 (Sebastian)
  • Guia, lawful Dwarf, AC4, HP 8 (lvl 2); Str13, Int10, Wis11, Dex10, Con14, Cha8 (Steisha)

CharGen had taken a very long time largely because these two really agonized over equipment. I encouraged everyone to use one of the Fast Packs on the rear panel of the module. Everyone supplemented from the equipment list. But Steisha and Sebastian really thought long and hard over how to squeeze out every GP of value.

I mentioned in passing that they could acquire things not on the equipment list, as long as they were mundane, or they took the effort to explain from the in-character perspective why they’d have this or that thing, or were otherwise reasonable. Well, they went to town probing me for what freebies they might get. They came up with things like mortar & pestle, prayer rug, cooking herbs, wooden box, fishing net, mirror (glass not polished metal), pair of tongs, pipe (smoking not music), and a terrier (a dog named Honey Boo-Boo). Most of this would not matter at all. I just found it funny that, while they didn’t know how to metagame or take advantage of any other aspect of D&D, they aggressively pushed it for equipment.

So, session three had four players and the entire team of five PCs—Halfling, two Dwarves, Cleric and Elf (run in absentia)—all still level 1. Guia and Igollad make their way through the introductions, killing a Stirge outside along the way, and stumbled onto the others en route to the Magi of Usamigaras.

This was one of many times that Guruff’s Charisma bonus helped the party avoid combat and make friends. The leader, Auriga Sirkinos, took to Guruff immediately. Halflings, Dwarves and Elves do not exist in my Cynidicea. They are known from the historical record, but only as relics of a distant past. They found the Halfling Abraxo delightfully cute, and the Elf Wilfer inherently exotic and alluring.

Guia’s terrier they found wondrous beyond description—an immediate object of covetousness. In Cynidicea they still have insects, reptiles and some mammals. But, like some humanoids, many are long lost and known only from illustrations in ancient folios. Their memory kept alive mainly by the colorful masks worn by every human Cynidicean.

The PCs and Magi talk at length, and visit Topside, where the Cynidiceans stare in wonder at open sky for the first time in three generations. The PCs notice that the night sky is fundamentally wrong. Stars are out place. Where the moon should be new, it is now nearly full. Auriga has no notions as to why this is. The Magi have kept careful charts and records of the movements of the heavens. He confirms that the constellations in the sky do not match the ancient records of his people from before the Fall, four centuries ago. Also that this is the same experience noted during every other “return of Topside” since the Fall.

Auriga and the other Magi then delve into study and contemplation. When the party expresses a desire to poke around the Ziggurat, Auriga steers them towards the abandoned northwest section of Tier 3.

Following the rotating passage they enter the hallway aimed at Room 13. They spot the secret door to 18 (Secret Room). They nudge the basket full of coin. Peeking under the lid, they avoid the first strike of the vipers. Closing the lid, they set the basket on fire, killing the snakes and securing a pretty considerable XP haul.

They enter the door to 17a (Water Trap), which is just an empty chamber, and discover a camouflaged pressure plate in the floor. Everyone exits the room but for Guia, who taps the plate with a wooden pole. The door slams shut and the room rapidly starts to fill with water from vents up high in the wall. The Dwarf, in chainmail, is quickly submerged. The others debate how to release him, looking for a trigger to open the door. They don’t know B/X and Open Doors, so it only occurs to them to try to force it on the third turn, after which Guia will drown. They make their roll and I do not have to deal with Steisha losing her only character in her first role-playing game.

Soaked, but still unharmed, they creep back to 13 (Abandoned Ceremonial Chamber). Listening at the door, they hear moaning and mumbling. They knock, and the door is yanked open by a creature that is top human and bottom giant snake. It has been crudely sewn together in the midsection to join man and snake. Its hands end in sharp talons and its eyes are reptilian. It moans piteously, body held up high on its coils. As they frantically back away down the hall, it slithers after them, gibbering incoherently about its punishment at the hand of the Priests, and asking if it has been forgiven for its sins. Terrified, they put their backs to wall and keep very still. The horror, expecting punishment or redemption and finding neither, slithers by and out the door. The PCs scoop up the Zardozian ritual artifacts and make their way back to the chambers of the Magi.

During their brief foray, Auriga has conferred with Padoma of the Warrior Maidens about recent developments. Padoma admires the party’s bravery and willingness to explore. She and her entourage also take to Abraxo (the only female PC) and pass the Halfling back and forth among them.

Guruff is offered and accepts membership as a Novitiate with the Magi. Abraxo likewise joins the Maidens. Wilfer (when I next speak with the player Matt) later declines membership with the Magi, who will continue to court him without success throughout the campaign.

In my games, PCs in the absence of the player earn XP at half the rate, like NPCs do. 1810 XP are therefore divided into nine shares, and divvied out—two shares to each PC with a present player and one to Wilfer. Two of them have already exceeded 1000 xp, but none have yet hit level 2.

In contrast to campaign Group 1, this group does not assume that every living thing it meets is evil or dangerous, despite having suffered three fatalities and a fourth near death. They are learning to be open to indirect solutions to problems, whether that means negotiation, retreat or siege. Virtually all of their XP thus far has been earned other than by melee. I find this very much to be in the spirit and intent of B/X.

I feel a need to explain how I played the factions. I’m a bit hesitant, because this is a little un-politically-correct. But I think it helps illustrate something about GMing and role-play in general.

Kanadius and the Brothers of Gor’m I play as a stern, sober, honorable bunch, wary of taking risks and not especially open to new ideas. Auriga and the Magi of Usamigaras (in their multi-colored robes) I play as effete, omni-sexual, decadent, friendly schemers. Padoma and the Warrior Maidens of Maduara are direct, brave, rash, honorable.

I shamelessly use a lilting gay voice for Auriga, and a sassy black woman’s voice for Padoma. It might be lazy, falling back onto obvious stereotype. And I totally get that gayness and blackness ought not to be used as objects of inherent amusement, thereby rendering them implicitly not-normative. The thing is, it works. At least it worked for me and this group. Stereotype in a game can be really fun. I’m not exactly sure why that is, but I think most of us have experienced it.

I do know that stereotype, by its very nature, is easy because it’s familiar and accessible. It’s kind of shorthand that can be used to rapidly fill in the blanks of a character’s motivation, personality, appearance, etc. What it discards in depth and sensitivity, it gains in accessibility (to the un-offended anyway). It paints a colorful picture quickly, if two-dimensionally. This is super useful when trying to engage players around a table.

This kind of gets at a broader aspect of my GMing style. I’m a huge planner, researching/inventing the history, geography, politics, etc. of the game world. And I’m very much drawn to making it “realistic” in its way, with reasons for the existence of various humanoid races, monsters, magic, and so on. But in actual game-play, I tend to play up humor and irony where I find it. I don’t run a silly game. But I don’t shut down table banter, however silly, if it’s in-character or about the game-world or adventure.

I think I embrace humor, however lazily, in part because I don’t have access to players who are willing to play the sober game I’m actually more interested in. I’d love to play a hyper-realistic game, where monsters are deemed monstrous, magic wondrous, and NPCs are entirely three-dimensional. But it’s a rare player who would be willing to invest that much psychological effort into taking it that seriously. So, I go for a second-best mode, blending realism and hyperbole.

There’s certainly a longer essay to tease out here, but this isn’t my forum (and I haven’t written it anyway). I just thought I’d throw it out there, because the tone I set for the faction NPCs was a big part of the fun of these campaigns. It occupied a fair bit of screen time, and went a long way towards getting the players to engage.

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3 responses to “Guest Post: Slithering Horror, Ten Foot Poles, and a Dog Named Honey Boo-Boo

  1. Brian Renninger October 15, 2014 at 8:42 am

    I appreciate the discussion about stereotypes. I think the practice is pretty common. I have found it a struggle not to resort to stereotype characters and voices. In the end, it is incredibly difficult to come up with both subtle and distinct personalities for each NPC. And, ultimately, most people are not that great of actors so they do what they can do. This is something, in one way or another, all GMs tussel with and it is nice to hear a discussion of the issue.

  2. Jason October 15, 2014 at 8:48 am

    I, too, crave that full immersion style of play that apparently is a thing of the past anymore. I’d prefer to do do with GURPS under the hood, but otherwise I’m right there with ya.

  3. earlburt October 15, 2014 at 5:41 pm

    I just had a, maybe obvious, insight. The most colorful NPCs this campaign were those I’d made up from whole cloth (Topsiders from the caravan) or one-line “monsters” from the module, like the Sprites. The three faction leaders may have been more two dimensional because I wasn’t in their head. The module described them to me, so maybe I felt constrained about being creative.

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